[This post is tremendously nerdy Star Wars fan ranting. There is no physics. You have been warned!]
Let me get this straight: I tremendously enjoyed Star Wars: Episodes 1-3. I enjoyed them in all their badly-acted, incoherently characterized, effects-dependent glory. Every single one of them I walked into and out of the theater with a huge grin on my face. Yes, even Episode 1. They weren’t works of art by any stretch, but they had enough of the classic Star Wars magic to turn me back into that wide-eyed little kid watching in wonder as Luke blew up the Death Star.
So ignore all the numerous “obvious” problems with the prequels. Heaven knows there’s no lack of them. The vast majority could have been fixed with a good screenwriter to translate Lucas’ overall ideas onto the screen while scrapping his ludicrous specifics. (Anakin’s motivation for joining the dark side, slaughtering children, and plunging the galaxy into darkness was to maybe vaguely help his not-actually-endangered pregnant wife? You’ve got to be kidding me.) There is, however, one tremendous overall problem that represents the most serious failure of the prequels.
The name of the entire series is Star Wars. Though we focus on the stories of the individual characters and their personal struggles in the context of the Force, the reason for all this trouble in the first place is that there is a war going on. Quick quiz: in the original trilogy, why is the war being fought? Anyone who’s seen 10 minutes of the original films can tell you. There is an Empire, it’s evil, and thus there’s a rebellion trying to overthrow it. We know the Empire is evil because within the first third of the first movie the Empire has blown up a planet, tortured Princess Leia, and incinerated Luke’s aunt and uncle. Why the sides fight is easy. One wants to dominate the galaxy, one wants to stop being dominated.
Quiz number 2: in the prequel trilogy, why is the war being fought? Good luck getting anything but a confused stare out of any casual viewer of the prequels. The movies do an awful job of communicating the single most basic fact of the entire plot – what the heck is going on in this “star war” anyway. I’m not saying there needed to have been an original trilogy style Manichean good vs. evil war. Wars rarely are that simple. But even the most morally gray wars have reasons for being fought that their instigators and combatants could articulate. They may be bad or unjust reasons, but reasons nonetheless. And when you film a war, you have to show those reasons or else you’re going to have a lost audience. And in fact the particular war in the prequel trilogy has no fewer than three motivations, of which George Lucas bothered to clearly show exactly zero on the screen. To figure them out you have to be pretty savvy as to the workings of the Star Wars universe, which is not at all fair to the casual viewer.
Reason 1: Trade disputes. This is the reason the public of the galaxy believes the war is being fought. The movie never bothers to go into the slightest detail about this despite wasting tremendous time on senate scenes that advance the plot precisely none. Apparently the “Trade Federation”, the “Commerce Guild”, and the “Banking Clan” are… I dunno, trying to secede? It’s not explained, and could not possibly make sense if it were. Generally it sounds like the kind of thing you hear explained to you in real life by bug-eyed lunatics ranting about the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group. It’s just not plausible. But it could have easily been made plausible. Steal the plot of the American Revolution and throw in the Trade Federation as an anachronistic British East India Company defecting to the side of the Americans for their own financial advantage. You could easily erase any Manichean character to the struggle if you wanted, and it would make a lot more sense than what in the actual films sounds more like Goldman Sachs suddenly unleashing a robot army on the world.
Reason 2: To provide an excuse for Chancellor Palpatine to seize power. This is what the movie seems to be trying to say the “real” reason for the war is, but it also makes very little sense in context. Palpatine is the highest ranking politician in the Republic, simultaneously and secretly the leader of the separatists fighting the Republic, and oh by the way he’s a Sith Lord with mind control powers and lightning shooting out of his fingers. He clearly has very little problem gaining power with or without a war. Now of course this is a real reason for the war, but so far as the Emperor is concerned it’s a secondary benefit of his starting a war by being the leader of both sides. The real real reason for the war is this:
Reason 3: To spread the Jedi throughout the galaxy as lone individuals surrounded by thousands of clone soldiers completely loyal to Palpatine. Once this was done, they could be easily wiped out and the only real threat to Palpatine’s consolidation of power – the other group of mind-controlling wizards – could be eliminated. This wheels-within-wheels scheme is fundamentally the reason the war was instigated. And darned if the movie doesn’t completely fail to make this clear to the audience.
So if I were able to do some rewrite work on the prequel trilogy (other than fixing the obvious crap that I alluded to earlier), that’s what I’d do. Clearly show why the war was being fought, both the public reasons and the hidden reasons.
And make Anakin less of a petulant baby. And make Jar-Jar a three-dimensional character. And get someone with talent to completely rewrite the cringe-inducing love scenes. And…
Well, you get the picture.